Vinoth Ramachandra

A New Reformation

Posted on: July 24, 2017

The American (Eastern Orthodox) theologian David Bentley Hart raises some thought-provoking questions about the American church that if raised by others would immediately be brushed aside as symptomatic of “anti-Americanism”. In an article (“The Angels of Sacré-Coeur”) first published in 2011, Hart writes:

“It is very much an open and troubling question whether American religiosity has the resources to help sustain a culture as a culture- whether, that is, it can create a meaningful future, or whether it can only prepare for the end times. Is the American religious temperament so apocalyptic as to be incapable of culture in any but the most local and ephemeral sense? Does it know of any city other than Babylon the Great or the New Jerusalem? For all the moral will it engenders in persons and communities, can it cultivate the kind of moral intelligence necessary to live in eternity and in historical time simultaneously, without contradiction?”

And he ends with the sober judgment: “European Christendom has at least left a singularly presentable corpse behind. If the American religion were to evaporate tomorrow, it would leave behind little more than the brutal banality of late modernity.”

Harsh words, perhaps, but they stem from a passion to see the Lordship of Christ embracing and permeating every area of the church’s life and engagement with the world. The apostle Paul too used harsh language in denouncing the way the face of Christ was distorted by both false teaching and behaviour inconsistent with the Gospel.

American Christian Fundamentalism (ACF) has made deep inroads into churches all over the world since the Second World War, and its influence has been magnified with the rise of satellite TV and the Internet. I have often said that, with the decline of old-style European theological liberalism, ACF poses a far bigger threat to the global church than Islamist fundamentalism. Why? Because the biggest threats arise not from those who can only kill the body but from those who kill our souls in the name of religion.

Here are four reasons, among others, for my concern:

(1) ACF promotes religious hypocrisy. Its preachers rail against “worldliness” while baptising the consumerist “American dream” and right-wing political agendas; they announce that we are living in “the last days” but they don’t close down their bank deposit accounts or pull their children out of school; they teach that “preaching the Gospel” is the primary, if not the only thing, that matters to God, but they themselves spend most of their time in getting married, building a home, ensuring that their children get the best health care, education and employment. They preach that since the earth is going to be destroyed anyway, environmental concerns are a waste of time; but they spend an inordinate amount of time feeding and clothing their bodies, repairing their homes and cars- all of which are likewise doomed to perish. They teach that all who don’t hear the Gospel are “going to hell”, but that doesn’t seem to move them to give up marriage, children, jobs, money, etc., and go about rescuing as many souls as they can from this “eternal hell”. If they clearly don’t believe what they preach, why should we?

(2) ACF promotes mindlessness. It demonizes whatever it doesn’t understand, especially Secularism, Evolution, Feminism, Islam and the ancient Asian religions. Walk into an affluent ACF-influenced church, and you will see some highly educated men and women in the audience who have checked in their critical thinking at the door. They passively absorb the most outrageous theological notions, submit to authoritarian forms of leadership, and fail to see the glaring contradictions between the lifestyle of Jesus and that of the preacher-entertainers on the podium.

This “split-mind” among many ACF-influenced academics and professionals is a product of the narrow “Gospel” they have been introduced to (e.g. “being born again”, “going to heaven when I die”, “having a personal relationship with God”), so that they cannot see how their daily work, studies, political views, economic behaviour, and so on, have anything at all to do with the Gospel of Christ.

(3) ACF promotes divisiveness. By preaching a private, individualistic “Gospel”, it blinds its followers to the scandal of Christian fragmentation, rivalry and separation. It also encourages “personality cults” which are often disguised as “doctrinal distinctives.” ACF-influenced Christians believe they have nothing to learn from other Christians. The concern of Jesus that the visible unity of the church is the best apologetic to a watching world (e.g. John 13:34, 35; 17:20,21) and Paul’s teaching that the visible unity of the church is central to the message of the cross itself (Eph. 2:14ff) – these are completely ignored.

(4) ACF promotes Zionist views re the Middle East, reinforcing the apartheid practices of the Israeli state. The post-1948 secular state of Israel is bizarrely identified with Old Testament covenant Israel, and the politics of the region going back to the 19th-century is simply ignored. Most tragically, there is a profound and culpable neglect of the entire New Testament understanding of Christ as the fulfilment of all the Old Testament promises (e.g. where is “the land” ever mentioned in the New Testament?).

At root, all these spring from the sad fact that those who talk most loudly about the “authority of the Bible” and being “Bible-believing” Christians, don’t actually read the whole Bible. They read a “Bible within the Bible” (selected verses used as proof-texts) or they read the Bible through spectacles taken from their favourite preachers and authors.

Which is why we need a new Reformation among evangelical Protestants.

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21 Responses to "A New Reformation"

Very strong words. I agree with almost everything you write.
But I’m left, like I am many times after reading your blog, with one question – What now?
I’m reminded of a book title by Francis Schaeffer “How Should We Then Live?”
If you have not already done it, maybe you could write about how we should be living. Of course I could just take your “four reasons” and do the opposite 😉

Well, if you agree, Mark, why not begin by sharing these with others in your circle of Christian friends? And if you have opportunities to teach in your church or other Christian organizations, why not teach the things with which you agree? “How then should we live”- by exposing lies, hypocrisy, injustice done in the name of Christ. If the issue is ignorance about Palestine or Feminism or Islam, you can find somebody knowledgeable in these areas to help educate you. If it is division/rivalry among Christians, offer yourself as a mediator. Etc.

Since my Blog is read by a global audience, I cannot be spelling out for each and every likely reader what exposing lies, hypocrisy, and injustice in his/her situation would involve. I am afraid you will have to do that work (often hard). But if you are doing what I hint at in my post- reading the whole Bible and not isolated verses, working with Christians from other church traditions than your own, you are more likely to discover the answers to your own question…

Thanks for your article Vinoth.
Is it another reformation that we need with its connotation of schism, etc. from the Latin Church and the ensuing fragmentation of the church or a striving for the visible unity of the church as you have alluded to?
David Bentley Hart’s “God” and his previous books “The Atheist Delusion” and the “Beauty of the Infinite” are penetrating in their analysis and illuminating.
Roshan

“reading the whole Bible” – this is only a partly true solution to our problem of living together. The originators of the ACF ‘read’ the whole Bible wrongly. E.g., one in a thousand problems: The KJV has infected Western Christendom with the notion of punishment as a means of training. Nothing is further from the truth. 6 differing roots in the Hebrew are glossed as punish. None of them has the primary meaning of punish. In my Bible there is no ‘punishment’ at all. Also no ‘repentance’, and no ‘soul’. Both these words are so distorted in the common mind that they are unusable.

I am, by the way, reading in Hebrew and writing in English that can be sung to the musical score that is embedded in the Hebrew Bible. I have read well over half the ‘whole’ Bible. The whole is an art song, and a tough exercise in puzzling out patterns of word and thought and not all of them are prescriptions for us, but simply historical literature to be seen in its foreign contexts. It must remain foreign lest we domesticate it to our own prejudice. I am of course not free from error myself.

Consequence: pay more attention if you are reading the Bible to what it actually says rather than what tradition has assigned to it as ‘meaning’. Do not let your understanding become simply a result of your will to power over others.

Roshan:

Luther sought a reformed Catholicism. He never espoused schism. Nor did Wesley leave the Anglican church- he was pushed out.

As someone who has been slowly leaving American, conservative evangelicalism over the past 10 years or so, I can´t thank you enough for what you have written in this post.

Very nice and Thank you. I think it is also important to recognize with some details that many churches in the US, mainly in the urban areas, that are have created many paths towards the type of reformation you are talking about. These churches are involved in so many struggles and face isolation from the mainstream white churches. My church is a sanctuary chruch and actively involved in Christ centered interventions in the anti-racist policies. Churches I am referring to are multicultural. In my many encounters with them, I use your two books: “Gods that Fail” and “Faiths in Conflict.” Most US Christians have no clues about the life in the cities and the struggles of the people of color, poor whites. Muslims and Palestinian. As the academic advisor to these students and also a part of Black Lives Matters, I am so frustrated with the Christians, including many members of the IVCF. These people never want to come to terms with White privilege that they continue to enjoy. Instead, they appropriate the same language and techniques of anti-racist struggles to suppress any sincere engagement with racism. Part of the reason is that they are unwilling to embrace struggle and taking risks as important aspects of Christian life. They think that they can participate I social justice without taking risks. I guess the reason is that they want to maintain their White privilege and at the same time participate in struggles against racism.

I have to think twice before I introduce a White Christain to a non-Christian!

I also don’t think that the Sri Lankan Church is any different from the US.

If you look at the Christian encounters with the ethnic conflict and reconciliation process we will see that multiethnic character of the church that transcends ethnic boundaries is mostly symbolic/superficial in it’s everyday practices and lacks the intellectual depth and outreach to have a greater impact on facilitating the conditions necessary for achieving a truly inclusive and multicultural Sri Lanka. Christians have let ethno-nationalism, patriotism, and capitalism rather than their fundamental Christian beliefs to frame their encounters with the ethnic conflict; their articulations of the sacred and secular in everyday practices have removed ‘God‘ from their worldly engagements in favor of the idols that they have created from ethno-nationalism, patriotism, and capitalism.

I only brought in “Reformation” because it has become a mantra in the light of this October being the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg. While Western “evangelicals” want to say that the issues at the heart of the Reformation are still alive today, their target is most often the Roman Catholic Church and not themselves!

And you don’t need to labour the point that the Sri Lankan evangelical church is no different. That was my point. What are we to expect when our pastors and seminary students are only reading books and watching sermons from ACF churches/organizations in the US (and translated by their branch churches/organizations into local languages)?

[…] Source: A New Reformation | Vinoth Ramachandra […]

Well written and well said.
May I suggest that Individuals and Fellowships with ‘Humble and Contrite Hearts’ who are themselves being transformed in their inner beings, could be a catalyst for a process of change. What is being suggested is a ‘revolution’ of 180 degrees; in a reflective process of ongoing repentance and the parallel acceptance that we are loved and forgiven, even as we are called more closely into a relationship with God. The statements in Phillipians 2 (NIV or your choice) are better than religion, rituals and dogma, let alone false interpretations, selective or otherwise. Note not a ‘revolution’ of 360 degrees – because that converts Transformational Discipleship into something cyclical with the inevitable reversion to what was already problematic.
Might creating communities of interpreters who are thinking disciples be the beginning of a ‘Way’? Meta-Cognition and Meta-Praxis require more than contemplation or ‘works’.
Is it not the case that too much contemporary teaching, preaching and worship seems to promote being followers of the fashionable, or that which is driven by behaviours that owe more to marketing and consumerism than a prayerful, deep listening to the Holy Spirit that is at work in us? Being Faith—FULL and Self—LESS might be another first step towards actually living, (however imperfectly) in the historical present and in the Light of eternity.
Whole and Holy Bible – yes please but not read in a linear and literal way. Instead let it be read in ways that engage with understanding the contemporary significance of the Living Word of God. All under an Episkope that is less about power, status and self and much more about service, self-sacrifice and the hope of salvation for the many and not just the few. Whatever it is and wherever being ‘fully engaged’ takes the Churches; persistent, persevering prayer, worship and praise is needed as much now as it was in the early Church and for similar reasons.
Time for a new Re-Formation and not just among evangelical Protestants?

Thank you Vinoth for the article. We have been discussing this issue in the recent times and I will share this with our church and study group and with others.

While the modern Evangelical can be faulted for many things, we should also remember that many of the things which have crept into Evangelicalism is in reaction to their marginalisation (or attempted) in the mainstream society. Most evangelicals have no interest in political power. Rather left to themselves they will live their lives without causing any trouble to anyone. The Evangelicals do value their liberties especially the ones which matters to their consciences.

Voting Trump was one way to assert their last remaining right (the right to ballot) to hold on to their dear freedoms. How else do you explain the case of a baker couple who were forced into bankruptcy because they would not bake a cake for a homosexual marriage?

Then there is a matter of White privilege. What is the point in beating the evangelical with the stick of racism and white privilege when we know the average evangelical does not gain anything from any privilege now. In fact most times being a Christian and a white Christian is a matter of ridicule.

As far as Islam goes not only do American White Evangelicals speak against the dangers of Islam but also those Ara Christians who manage to break free of the totalitarian regimes of the Islamic middle East. Every time the issue of Islamic violence is mentioned we are reminded of the crusades of the 11-13th centuries basically reinforcing the fact that Islam’s moral standards are stuck there – a millennium backwards.

As for capitalism/free markets Evangelicals support it because there is no economic system which works better in large societies.

Yes the average Evangelical is anti-intellectual, aggressive beyond requirement and a little insecure. Let is work to make them think more, hoard less and be more kind. But I share the Evangelical suspicion of Islamism, Fascism and other ancient religions (so called peaceful).

Has Hart had in-depth conversations with Christ followers in those churches, and observed their teaching and ministries?

Hart does not specify what percentage of churches fall into his “ACF” category. Is it 2 percent? 10? 30? It would help if Hart observed and reported on the spectrum of non-mainline churches. Instead, we get
a stereotype.

If Hart is going to make serious accusations, then he should be specific, and name churches and pastors by name. But he cites no specific churches or church leaders, but only what he calls “American Christian Fundamentalism” (with capital letters) as if it’s an organization. It may be a movement, but a quick Google search turned up no such organization.

A specific problem is his comment “they announce that we are living in “the last days” but they don’t close down their bank deposit accounts or pull their children out of school” But if they did close their bank accounts and remove kids from school, Hart would probably denounce them as being unfit to be parents. No matter what they do, Hart’s got them in his sights.

Rex:

It is I who speak of ACF (a short-hand acronym) and not Hart. And you can easily identify ACF-shaped churches and organizations anywhere in the world when you encounter some of the teaching and practices I list under the four concerns.

Hart’s critique is much broader. He is lamenting the fact that if the American Church were to die tomorrow, it would leave no cultural legacy. He is thinking in terms of great literature, art, drama, sculpture, architecture, music etc. I think he is right (though I would perhaps suggest that jazz and soul are the best American Christian legacies).

Horribly written. The author does not define who is he targeting. Who/ what comprises the ACF? He is using a broad paintbrush to paint a swathe of American Christianity. There is no sense of nuance. For e.g., who is targeted in this article? A John MacArthur kind of person or a Joel Osteen kind of person? How can you paint both ends of spectrum with same shade. There is very obvious lack of effort and proper research in this article. One thing is for sure, the Reformation won’t occur if such kind of anti intellectual, emotional articles are written. The entirety of this blog would not sum up to even a single point of Luther’s thesis.
Point 2 gets my goat even more. Obviously the author has yet to read guys like Sproul, McDowell, Al Mohler etc and their thoughts on secularism, feminism etc. Looks like any criticism of these streams is wrong. We are supposed to embrace them unquestioningly. If we question, we are mindless. The article seems to be written with more heart but no head, more heat and less light. As for the ” narrow” Gospel, wonder why the Good Teacher talked about a certain way being narrow and where a certain broad road led.

@drshalome:

Horribly written? No research? I don´t see one bit of research in what you wrote.

Also … doesn´t experience count for anything? I was in both “Joel Osteen” type circles as well as “John MacArthur” type circles for some years. Now, being able to look into where I once was from the outside with a new, more informed perspective, I can confidently say both groups tend toward the things Vinoth mentions in his ACF post.

Finally … I cannot speak for Vinoth directly, but I don´t think he would doubt that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. I think he is merely pointing out the fact that in most conservative evangelical circles there seems to be way too much focus on individuality and going to heaven when one dies. The Gospel is much more holistic and practical than that.

Cogent and challenging as ever Vinoth. Much appreciated, thank you. It is also refreshing to read (at least some) considered and nuanced comments in response.

It reminds me of NT Wright’s admonition to have a Kingdom-based focus that prepares for the New Creation albeit yours is a more controversial and confrontational approach. By no means do I imply this is bad in the context. It is necessary. Christ was both controversial and confrontational at times.

I have been wrestling with the various ideas about ‘end times’ and how this impacts on our efficacy as Christians now so this post is timely. I’m tired of the same old polarisation; Christians with their narrow focus on both ends either ignoring or mitigating the importance of holistic Holy living and focusing on social justice or ignoring social justice as if it’s mutually exclusive to morality as a whole. I wondered if by not being preoccupied with prophecies about Babylon, the Anti-Christ etc I was taking the easy way out;choosing not to believe these could be realities in our times. The problem is the pre-millennial perspective errs towards what I call Christian fatalism as outlined in your post; this idea of letting the world go to hell in a handcart because it’s all about to burn anyway. You are so correct to decry the intrinsic contradictions and lack of self-awareness/reflection, a distinction that Rex failed to grasp in constructing his straw man argument.

For so long I believed that there was one prevailing end-time perspective and all else were fringe or even heresies. I’m still trying to disentangle myself from this limited viewpoint. Fairly recently a (conservative) friend pointed out there is no Christian consensus because the Bible is not crystal clear or completely coherent on the matter. It’s part of the enduring mystery Deut 29:29-style. If we can make such a hatchet job with the little we do know, it’s no wonder the Lord hasn’t yet disclosed all.

Haha. I like the comment about Jazz and soul. I’d agree although I wouldn’t have thought to categorise them as ‘Christian’ legacies. Yet on deeper reflection, of course their links to the Negro Spirituals make that analysis pretty obvious.

Apologies for the stream-of-consciousness manner of my comment. As you can tell, I’m still negotiating all these issues in my own head. Thinking out loud.

Shalom x

The common thread that undergirds the four areas of ACF is the ‘public vs the private’ compartmentalisation of our lives. Even if we read the whole Bible in our private ‘devotional’ or ‘Church’ compartments and leave behind what we learn, when we enter the public arena, we would continue in our hypocritical, mindless, divisive and historically naive life-styles.
The transformation we need globally and locally, individually and corporately (church) is that which converts our (regardless of ACF or Sanctuary, white or black, US or Sri Lankan etc) minds to rejuvenate our lives where by constant application – theory informing praxis and vice versa or more precisely Trusting in God (faith) leading to Living out that Trust (works) which in turn leads to greater faith and works. For this dynamic to be effective we need each other including constructive criticism.
Once again thanks, Vinoth. Every blog of yours to date has been informative and transformative and I have tried to stimulate discussion both in the church and the world. These writings help us to move out of our middle-class comfort zones and engage in useful living which will be valued for eternity whilst refraining from that which has little value (self promoting life styles).

Tola:

Your “thinking aloud” is always most welcome. It is what I am trying to encourage through this Blog.

The reason I have to tackle ACF head-on is that this is no academic theological exercise for me. I get angry when I see so many young people damaged by ACF-influenced circles who (once they start thinking for themselves) leave the Church and want nothing to do with Christianity. It is very hard to win them back.

Regarding your friend’s comment (“there is no Christian consensus because the Bible is not crystal clear or completely coherent on the matter”): while this may be true of other eschatological issues (e.g. the nature of heaven/judgment), where the concept of “end-times” or “last days” is concerned, I believe the New Testament writers are clear and consistent in their claim that the “end-times”/”last days” were inaugurated with the Resurrection & Pentecost (e.g. Acts 2:17ff). As for Zionism, I frankly don’t see how any Christian who reads the New testament can continue to believe that the modern secular state of Israel can have anything to do with “Biblical Israel” (whether in the OT or NT)!

There are some simple rules of interpretation (e.g. identifying literary genre, reading texts in their historical context, and so on) which, if taught and followed in our churches, would lead people out of ACF.

Moreover, as for divisiveness (one of the common traits of ACF I mentioned), isn’t it “crystal clear” that Jesus taught us to love one another, and that the visible unity of his Church was central to the good news of his Kingdom?

I am reminded of Mark twain’s well-known quip- “It is not the hard sayings of Jesus I find difficult, but the ones that are plain.”

The problem Vinoth (from my personal experience) is that in ACF churches they simply dismiss all scholarship that doesn´t fit their theological agenda as that ugly, heretical “liberal scholarship”. This narrow and ignorant mindset really prevents the ecumenical program from penetrating our churches — especially those within the ACF realm.

I, for one, am not sure how to change this.

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